AJIT KUMAR JHA
The “coronation” of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister of the UK on Diwali day has been celebrated with much more pomp and pageantry than the coronation of King Charles III, in the UK and globally. Reason: while the coronation of Charles III is a foregone conclusion, Sunak’s elevation as PM, is a true story of grit, determination, discipline, struggle, merit and ambition.
Sunak’s life and his extraordinary rise in politics have become the aptest metaphor for the story of the evolution of the Indian diaspora, and its trajectory from the depths of anonymity to the dizzying heights of glory. The global spread of the Indian diaspora, and its story of phenomenal prosperity, is as poignant as it is paradoxical. Paradoxically, while more Indians vote Labour, it is the Tories which has provided more space to the rich Indian communities which immigrated during the second wave of migration
THE TWO WAVES OF INDIAN MIGRANTS
Indian migration to the UK took place in two distinct waves, very similar to the Indian migration to the USA. The first wave of Indian migration to the UK was in the 1940s when migrants were recruited directly from India by successive governments in the UK to fill the severe labour shortage that resulted from the second world war (1939 to 1945). In the US, the first wave of migration of Indian labour was earlier from 1906 to 1926 and then later in lesser numbers until 1946.
FIRST WAVE MIGRANTS TO THE UK: LABOUR PARTY VOTERS
The first wave of migrants to the UK settled in the Midlands city of Birmingham and Manchester, working in foundries, textile mills and manufacturing. Facing racial prejudice, these blue-collar migrants were involved in building Britain’s antiracist and trade union movements in the 1950s and 60s, drawing on lessons learned from anti-colonial struggles back home to organise their communities in Britain. To this day, these communities are disproportionately working class and Labour voting.
FIRST-WAVE MIGRANTS TO THE USA
The majority first wave migrants to the USA, mainly from the Punjab, who were indentured labourers, settled in California as farm labourers or as construction labourers for the Hoover Dam. They settled both in southern California near the Mexican border as well as in Northern California in Stockton, Yuba City and other smaller cities. A big section migrated to Surrey next to Vancouver in Canada.
Since California had miscegenation laws until 1946, whereby a brown or black man could not legally marry a white woman, these labourers could not marry local Caucasian women, therefore, a large section of them (Sikhs as well as Hindus) married Mexican women who were Christian. The mixed community, consisting of Sikh or Hindu husbands and Christian Mexican wives, were called “Mexidus.” About 26,000 registered mixed marriages were solemnised in California between 1906 to 1926. Karen Leonard, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, penned a poignant portrait of the Mexidu community in Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican American in 1992.
SECOND-WAVE MIGRANTS TO THE USA
The second wave of migrants to the US, university-educated, white-collar, professionals arrived after former US President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which changed the face of America, especially its racial contours. Professionals like doctors, engineers, Techies, managers and IT professionals (especially since 2000) arrived in droves migrating first as students to top Ivy League universities and later staying on in jobs as American HI visa holders, green card holders and American citizens. The Tamil mother of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Punjabi parents of former Governor of Louisiana Piyush Bobby Jindal and several other successful politicians belong to the second wave
SECOND WAVE MIGRANTS TO THE UK: TWICE MIGRANTS
The second wave of Indian migrants to Britain was partly the so-called “twice migrants” who arrived from east Africa in the 1960s and 70s, having been expelled or encouraged to leave by the newly independent regimes in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The families of our Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, home secretary Suella Braverman and former home secretary Priti Patel are all part of this twice migrant second wave. The other second-wave migrants were from India, rich businessmen who prospered in the UK. The Billionaire club consists of Laxmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal, Vedanta Chairman Anil Agarwal, Biocon’s chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Baron Swraj Paul and other top business magnates.
POTENTIAL TORY VOTERS
When this group of Gujarati, Punjabi and other Indian traders, entrepreneurs, and businessmen arrived in the UK, from East Africa, many brought with them the considerable wealth they had amassed. English-educated, the majority of migrants had professional degrees and technical and managerial education. These advantages virtually guaranteed the economic success of east African Indians in Britain, especially in the retail businesses of former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “enterprise economy”, for which they soon became known.
The Tory leadership of the time identified this demographic as potential voters for the Conservative Party. From the 1980s onwards, the Tories began to court an imagined “Indian community”, limited to east African Indians who had settled around London. Successful British Indians were held up as evidence of what could be achieved under a free-market Conservative government. In 1988, Thatcher welcomed the new Indian high commissioner to Britain with the following words: “We so much welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, hard work and resolve to make a better life … you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative, which benefit not just you and your families but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole.” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pharmacist mother General Physician father and former Home Secretary Priti Patel’s newsagent-owning parents with Gujarati origin were typical of their generation.
Fast-forward to 2010, and the Conservatives held 30 per cent of the British Indian vote. After 30 years of Thatcherite ideology, British Indians were the most pro-Conservative ethnic minority, after the Jewish community. After decades of gradual advance, this number soared to 40 per cent in 2017. In the 2019 election, as the Conservatives chased a realignment towards white northern voters based on racist scaremongering, support in constituencies with high Indian populations increased substantially again. At every point, this has included members of both groups of Indian migrants.
In the last few years, British Indians made up 15 per cent of the Tory cabinet under Boris Johnson. Today a British citizen of Indian origin Rishi Sunak entered 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister and some key cabinet members including Suella Braverman as home secretary.
From ayahs and lascars, to blue colour workers the Indian diaspora has graduated to dizzying heights both as key political leaders and successful businessmen.